We often ask ourselves, will anyone read my story? Is my story worth telling? Take a moment and think about it. What is that story worth to you? What has life given you? What has it taken away from you? How have your circumstances moulded you? Have they had any impact upon you? What if things had been different…?
We are constantly asking ourselves, ‘who cares – nobody could possibly be interested in my life.’ It is almost as if by writing our own story we are somehow being self-indulgent and somehow, we make that to be an unworthy attribute.
Some years ago, on a visit to the Serengeti plains in East Africa, I learnt of a proverb that Masais in the village use – ‘Every time an elder dies, a library burns to the ground.’ Those words have stayed with me forever.
It took me back to the days when I used to listen to my grandmother tells us (me and my cousins) stories as she oiled and plaited our hair. She would talk of the times in pre- independence India when life was so different. She told us stories of how she had to smuggle her nine-day old son in her bosom, swathed in layer upon layer of blankets as she fled with her five-year old daughter and family to escape the Hindu - Muslim riots in Calcutta. She spoke of the horrors as if they happened yesterday. Till the day she died, she believed her son was brain damaged because of lack of oxygen as she carried him for hours hidden against her heart.
We hear everyday stories of horror, glory, faith and tragedy told in the tabloids, on television and radio. Who are these people? What are they going through? What makes them behave the way they do?
That is the substance of memoirs. Telling your truths – the difficult ones and the joyful ones and everything in between. It is the everyday mundane things that we live through that make up the fabric of society. Stories of statesmen and well-known personalities are always documented by the media; but the stories that lie within each of us are no less important. Individual stories are vastly more important. They tell of people’s resilience, of their humanity, of their courage of their demons and their misdeeds. If we do not record these stories in one form or another, we are losing so much precious material.
And when we die, we take those stories with us.
Memoirs are about communicating your truth to others. It is your perspective. Your take on life. But truth alone does not make for good writing or an interesting story. When we set out to write our memoirs, it is because we want to not only tell our story, but in some way have readers relate to us. Writers write to be read. It takes courage to pen a memoir. It is also a cathartic process. It cleanses the soul and sets you free.
So how do you set about writing a memoir?
Life is never linear. It was never meant to be. You can’t move from point A to B to C. Even when you think about your own life, your thoughts will spiral out of control. Certain memories will jump out at you, others will be like mist on the horizon. Some acts will stand out with alarming clarity (perhaps only to be refuted by your sibling, ‘ no, it never happened that way!’). Or some phases in your life will be a murky cloud of disjointed memories.
What is the truth?
The truth is your memories as you recall it. Which does not mean you have the liberty to lie, for you might as well write fiction then. Writing brings up long buried memories. You will do some deep soul searching. It is unavoidable that you will bring up old wounds, write about people in your life but you cannot show them in the best light. The truth in a memoir is as you saw it. If you are writing about escaping from boarding school, your story will be quite different from the matron’s who found her ward missing.
Writing your memoir is going to be exhausting. Memories buried deep will take on a life of their own; people long gone will come alive again. You will experience the same pain and trauma – but from a distance. The good thing is, it will give you more insight.
When we write memoir, we pull back the curtain on our private lives and invite readers in. We willingly give up our privacy, or a chunk of it. But because we’re human, our stories also include other people: parents and siblings, teachers and neighbors, lovers and friends — and they haven’t exactly signed on to the deal. ~ Tracy Seele, Prof of English, San Francisco
Do not judge yourself. Just write.
When you start writing (if your occupation is nothing to do with writing) you may find yourself facing a blank page. Or writing a few sentences and then moving on to something else. Maybe you only end up writing a couple of hundred words.
Give yourself permission to write badly. Writing is much like running or exercising. Hard at first, but once you get going, your muscles ease up and you begin enjoying it. Writing doesn’t come easily to the best authors. It is simply practice. The practice of reading and the practice of writing. You cannot learn to write well if you haven’t read enough. So read as many memoirs as you can, read fiction, read autobiography, borrow from the local library, download on your kindle or kobo, buy books at airport bookshops. Just read.
And then write. Write as you are reading. Write every single day. It doesn’t have to be about the memoir. Write about anything that comes to mind. Scribble. Use pen and paper rather than a keyboard. There is something about the hand-eye- brain coordination that helps your thoughts flow. Of course, use the keyboard, by all means, if you are not old fashioned like me. But for heaven’s sake, write!
Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones is an incredible book for anyone thinking about writing – especially memoir. Here is a little snippet from her book:
- Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to read the line you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying.)
- Don’t cross out. ( That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it).
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. ( Don’t even worry about staying within the margins and lines on the page).
- Lose control.
- Don’t think, don’t get logical.
- Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)
Your memoir is not just about you. It’s about all those people who shared your journey. It’s about the people you can impact with your story.
Remember it is your legacy, not just to your family, but to society. Your story will benefit others to overcome similar situations. It is important for people to know that they can relate to your story – to know that they are not alone. Writing a memoir is a cathartic process. You get to understand your own life a bit better. Writing forces you to review and take stock. With distance comes wisdom.